The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) was born in 1845 when 293 delegates-frustrated with regulations passed by Northern abolitionists preventing slave owners from becoming missionaries-met in Augusta, Georgia, and adopted a plan for "eliciting, combining and directing the energies of the whole denomination in one sacred effort, for the propagation of the gospel."
Does this "sacred effort" continue today? This month marks the one-hundred-fiftieth anniversary of the SBC's founding-an ideal time to consider the theological foundations of America's largest Protestant denomination and how they can be made to serve the church in the next era.
The framers of the SBC developed an orthodox Baptist consensus that was able to withstand, despite some stumbling, the crises of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and denominational schism. (For a survey of the SBC's progress in race relations, see "Black Southern Baptists," in this issue.)
More recently the SBC has been preoccupied with battles over the control of the denomination. This painful struggle needs to be understood in context: After a hundred years of orthodox consensus, denominational pragmatism became the infallible dogma of Southern Baptist life in the three decades following World War II. At the same time, Baptist bureaucrats and denominational elites gradually led the SBC toward alignment with mainline Protestant concerns. For example, as amazing as it now seems, the SBC Christian Life Commission was once an ardent supporter of the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights. Without a conservative resurgence, Southern Baptists would doubtless have followed many of the mainline denominations in the path of spiritual decline and theological erosion.
The conservative victory in the SBC will prove hollow, however, unless it is accompanied by spiritual and theological renewal. What are the benchmarks for shaping Baptist theological identity for such a time as this? Looking at five classic principles drawn from the Baptist heritage is one place to start. Together they form a cluster of convictions that have guided Southern Baptists through storms of the past.
In 1994, the SBC unanimously adopted a resolution acknowledging that "Southern Baptists have historically confessed with all true Christians everywhere belief in the triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the full deity and perfect humanity of Jesus Christ, his Virgin Birth, his sinless life, his substitutionary atonement for sins, his resurrection from the dead, his exaltation to the right hand of God, and his triumphal return; and we recognize that born again believers in the Lord Jesus Christ may be found in all Christian denominations."
Baptists are orthodox Christians who stand in continuity with the dogmatic consensus of the early church on matters such as the scope of Holy Scripture, the doctrine of God, and the person and work of Jesus Christ. Leon McBeth correctly observes that Baptists have "often used confessions not to proclaim 'Baptist distinctives' but instead to show how similar Baptists were to other orthodox Christians." Thus the "Orthodox Confession" of 1678 incorporated the Apostles', Nicene, and Athanasian creeds, declaring that all three "ought thoroughly to be received and believed. For we believe that they may be proved, by most undoubted authority of Holy Scripture and are necessary to be understood of all Christians." Reflecting this same impulse, the Baptists who gathered in London for the inaugural meeting of the Baptist World Alliance in 1905 recited in unison the Apostles' Creed.
Fundamentalism arose in the early part of this century as a protest against the concessions and denials of liberal theologians on such cardinal tenets as the Virgin Birth, the inerrancy of the Bible, and penal substitutionary atonement. This was a valid and necessary protest, and we should be grateful for those worthy forebears who stood with courage and conviction on these matters. However, the problem with fundamentalism as a theological movement was its tendency toward reductionism-not what it affirmed, but what it left out.
In recent years, the inspiration and authority of the Bible have again assumed a major role in SBC polemics. From the drafting of the Baptist Faith and Message in 1963 through the adoption of the Presidential Theological Study Committee Report in 1994, Southern Baptists have repeatedly declared their confidence in the inerrancy or total truthfulness of Holy Scripture. As the latter report declares, "What the Bible says, God says; what the Bible says happened, really happened; every miracle, every event, in every book of the Old and New Testaments is altogether true and trustworthy." More recently, however, the SBC has also found it necessary to address other pressing doctrinal issues such as the being of God (i.e., the immanence/transcendence debate) and the importance of using biblical language to address him (over against radical feminism), and belief in Jesus Christ as sole and sufficient Savior (over against universalism and soteriological pluralism). Only by cultivating a holistic orthodoxy, based on a high view of Scripture and the Trinitarian and Christological consensus of the early church, will Southern Baptists avoid the dangers of rigid reductionism on the one hand and liberal revisionism on the other.
Southern Baptists are evangelical Christians who affirm with Martin Luther and John Calvin both the formal and material principles of the Reformation: Scripture alone and justification by faith alone. In setting forth these twin peaks of evangelical faith, the Reformers were not introducing new doctrines or novel ideas. They argued like this: If the doctrine of the Trinity really presents us with the true God of creation and redemption; if Jesus Christ really is God from God, Light from Light, very God from very God; and if original sin is as pervasive and debilitating as we believe it to be, then the doctrine of justification by faith alone is the only faithful interpretation of the New Testament promise of forgiveness, pardon, and new life in Christ. While not agreeing with everything Luther or Calvin taught, Baptists claim the heritage of the Reformation as their own.
The word evangelical has myriad other meanings as well, and Southern Baptists can rightly claim at least two of these. First, they are heirs of the eighteenth-century evangelical awakening that produced Pietism in Germany, Methodism in England, and the First Great Awakening in the American colonies. Many features of Southern Baptist life resonate deeply with this mighty moving of God's Spirit: evangelistic witness and missionary vision, a historic emphasis on disciplined church life and godly living, commitment to a regenerate church membership and Spirit-filled worship, together with a refusal to divorce the personal and social dimensions of the gospel.
More recently, the word evangelical has been associated with the postfundamentalist resurgence among Bible-believing Christians in North America. The two most formative shapers of this movement are both Southern Baptists: Billy Graham and Carl F. H. Henry. While certain moderate Southern Baptists, reflecting an entrenched parochialism, have eschewed the label evangelical as a "Yankee word" unworthy for Southern Baptists to wear, more and more Southern Baptists are discovering that they have far more in common with conservative, Bible-believing Christians in other denominations than with Left-leaning Baptists in their own.
Far more important than wearing the label evangelical is the substance of the word in the senses outlined here: Southern Baptists should rightly claim the doctrinal legacy of the Reformation, the missionary and evangelistic impulse of the Great Awakening, and a transdenominational fellowship of believers committed to the Word of God and the task of world evangelization.
Despite a persistent Arminian strain within Baptist life, which subtly asserts that the reception of divine grace is contingent upon an act of the human will, historically most Baptists have adhered faithfully to the doctrines of grace set forth by Paul, Augustine, and the Reformers. Because of their unique brand of Reformed theology, Baptists have been branded with varying Calvinist labels. David Benedict, who made an extensive tour of Baptist churches throughout America in the early nineteenth century, gave the following summary of the Baptist theology he encountered: "They hold that man in his natural condition is entirely depraved and sinful; but unless he is born again-changed by grace-or made alive unto God-he cannot be fitted for the communion of saints on earth, nor the enjoyment of God in heaven; that where God hath begun a good work, he will carry it on to the end; that there is an election of grace-an effectual calling, etc., and that the happiness of the righteous and the misery of the wicked will both be eternal."
For some, the evangelical Calvinism of earlier Baptist generations has been eclipsed by a truncated hyper-Calvinism with its antimissionary, antievangelistic emphases. Many other factors have also contributed to the blurring of this part of the Reformation heritage that has shaped Baptist identity: the routinization of revivalism, the growth of pragmatism as a denominational strategy, an attenuated doctrine of the Holy Spirit, and a general theological laxity, which has resulted in doctrinal apathy. While seeking to restate traditional themes in contemporary ways, Southern Baptists would do well to connect again with the ideas that shaped the Baptist theology of such past heroes as John Bunyan, Roger Williams, Andrew Fuller, Adoniram Judson, Luther Rice, and Charles Haddon Spurgeon.
There is a growing awareness of Reformed theology among Southern Baptists today. There is a renewed commitment to the sovereignty of God in salvation, worship that centers on the glory of God rather than the entertainment of the congregation, and a perspective on history and culture that sees Jesus Christ as Lord of time and eternity. All of this can only result in the greater building up of the body of Christ.
At the same time, it is imperative for Reformed Southern Baptists to guard against the real dangers of views that emphasize divine sovereignty to the exclusion of human responsibility, or that deny that the offer of the gospel is to be extended to all people everywhere. Moreover, Reformed Southern Baptists must learn to live in gracious equipoise with their brothers and sisters who do not ring all five bells quite the way they do!
While Baptists owe much to the great doctrinal legacy of the mainline Reformers, their ecclesiology most closely approximates the radical Reformers' emphasis on the church as an intentional community composed of regenerated and baptized believers, bound to one another and to their Lord by a solemn covenant.
One of the most important contributions that Baptists have made to the wider life of the church is the recovery of the early church practice of baptism as an adult rite of initiation signifying a committed participation in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In many contemporary Baptist settings, however, baptism is in danger of being divorced from the context of this decisive life commitment.
This unfortunate development is reflected both in the liturgical placement of baptism in the worship service-often tacked on at the end as a kind of afterthought-and also in the increasingly younger age of baptismal candidates. This situation muffles the historic Baptist protest against infant baptism, a protest that insisted on the intrinsic connection between biblical baptism and repentance and faith.
Likewise, a minimalist understanding of the Lord's Supper often reduces this vital ordinance to an empty ritual detached from the spiritual life of believers. Several years ago I experienced a powerful service of the Lord's Supper at the First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas. During a Sunday morning service, the congregation was asked to kneel (an SBC church with kneelers in every pew!) and prayerfully receive the elements while the meaning of the ordinance was carefully explained from the Scriptures. In this setting, the experience of worship became a transforming encounter with the living Christ.
Sadly, many evangelical Christians too often associate a strong emphasis on Communion with the Roman Catholic belief of transubstantiation; but Southern Baptists need not succumb to unbiblical forms of sacramental theology in order to reclaim the historic Baptist understanding of the Lord's Supper. This view is best described in the Second London Confession of 1689: "Worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible elements in this ordinance, do then also inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally, but spiritually receive, and feed upon Christ crucified and all the benefits of His death: the Body and Blood of Christ, being then not corporally, or carnally, but spiritually present to the faith of believers, in that ordinance, as the elements themselves are to the outward senses."
On this sesquicentennial of the SBC, Southern Baptists would do well to remember and reclaim the confessional character of their common Christian commitment. Baptists are not a creedal people; they regard no humanly devised statement as equal to the Bible. Nor do they believe that the state has any authority to impose religious beliefs on its subjects. However, Baptists have historically approved and circulated confessions of faith for three reasons: as expressions of religious liberty, as statements of theological conviction, and as witnesses of truths held in sacred trust.
Just as a confession declares what we believe, so a church covenant is concerned with how we live. It sets forth in practical terms the ideal of the Christian life: a living faith, working by love, leading to holiness. The congregation's covenant also outlines that process of mutual admonition and responsibility through which fellow believers engage to "watch over" one another through encouragement, correction, and prayer.
The fact that governing power for the SBC lies with the members of its local congregations is both a privilege and a solemn responsibility. Local congregations must live up to the high call of their theology; it will not do merely to blame institutional hierarchy or denominational bureaucracy in this matter.
Finally, Baptist catechisms are concerned with passing on the faith intact to the rising generation, a responsibility shared by parents and pastors. Theological renewal will come only as Southern Baptist families and churches take seriously the awesome responsibility of grounding their children in the things of God.
In his Commentary on Daniel, John Calvin compared the work of God among his ancient people with the challenge of his own day. "God still wishes in these days to build his spiritual temple amidst the anxieties of the times," Calvin wrote. "The faithful must still hold the trowel in one hand and the sword in the other, because the building of the church must still be combined with many struggles." That struggle continues today-not against enemies of flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers, against lethargy and laziness, against defection and darkness on every hand. Yet God does continue to build his church amidst the anxieties of the times.
For 150 years he has blessed and used Southern Baptist believers in ways that future historians will record as remarkable. As we remember and give thanks for the mighty acts of God in days gone by, let us press forward in the earnest expectation that the Lord has yet more truth and light to reveal to us from his Holy Word. Above all, let us never forget that it is " 'Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit,' saith the Lord" (Zech. 4:6).
Timothy George is a senior editor of CHRISTIANITY TODAY and dean of Beeson Divinity School, Samford University, in Birmingham, Alabama.
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